The death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak from prolonged exposure to mould in his home in Rochdale should shame a nation. For years Awaab’s parents pleaded to their landlord for help and were either ignored or told the mould was the result of “lifestyle issues” – a claim proven by the coroner to be absolute rubbish.
When MPs met recently in the House of Commons to discuss this tragedy, many told stories of families living in cold, damp homes, where water runs down walls covered with thick black mould and cries for help go unanswered. There is complete political agreement that this is unacceptable but action has been achingly slow. The government has been consulting on a decent homes standard for four years and the Social Housing Bill, which gives tenants more power and a greater voice, has been in train for three years (and still isn’t law). Meanwhile, local housing budgets have halved in the past decade and now are expected to fall again following the Autumn Statement of 17 November.
This is what Bobby Kennedy once described as “the violence of institutions; indifference, inaction and slow decay”. The family of Awaab Ishak said the tragedy must be a “defining moment” for the housing sector, but many families will only believe change is happening when they see it – and it should never have taken the death of a little boy to get us here.
Making common cause
Inspired by the many people I’ve met in Britain and across the world, two years ago I decided to write a book. All In is about the country we could be if we handed power and resources to people in every part of the UK who are quietly building and preserving everything of value. Too often they have to fight the system, but imagine what they could achieve if they could feel the whole system pulling in behind them, with a government that had the same ambition for their families, community and country as they do.
It took some graft to get it down on paper: much of the book was written on my phone between trains at Crewe station as I navigated the rail chaos that has been a chronic feature for those of us in the north of England for nearly a decade. Sadly, I’ve been less successful at promoting it. Keen to host all my parliamentary colleagues at the launch, I’ve somehow managed to invite 400 people to a venue that can only hold 100. Not so much All In as all out.
Insult and injury
Parliament can get pretty lively sometimes but it was a new one to be told to “shut up” in the Commons chamber. A debate on 15 November on Labour’s motion to stop Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng taking thousands in ministerial pay-offs after crashing the economy and adding hundreds of pounds a month to people’s mortgage payments was never going to be good-tempered. One Conservative backbencher, though, excelled himself when he told me and my colleagues Sarah Owen and Paula Barker to “shut up”. It seems to have backfired. As well as getting a bollocking from the Speaker, the Tory MP’s rudeness ensured our opposition day debate was written up everywhere, from the Daily Mirror to Cosmopolitan magazine. As we say in Wigan, good manners cost nowt. It turns out bad manners can cost you quite a lot.
The big moment of last week was the Autumn Statement. It’s not unusual to hear a Chancellor trash his (sadly, so far it has always been “his”) predecessor but it normally happens after a change of government. This cabinet trashes its own record so often that it’s impossible to keep up. It was never going to be easy to explain away a £30bn invoice for a disastrous 44 days of Tory government, but the Chancellor gave it a good go. By my count, we’re currently up to five culprits: so far the government has blamed Vladimir Putin, the Bank of England, the Labour Party, the bond markets and “society”. I wonder who’ll be next.
The biggest loser in Jeremy Hunt’s statement was the department I shadow, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. The significance wasn’t lost on some of the sharper news outlets such as the Yorkshire Post. Levelling up was the answer to Britain’s lack of economic growth. Trying to power a modern economy using only a handful of people in a handful of sectors in a few parts of the country is like trying to fly a jet on one engine. By making levelling up the gravest casualty of the Autumn Statement the Tories have not only ditched the promise that won them the election in 2019, but any attempt to grow the economy too.
Lisa Nandy is the Labour MP for Wigan. “All In: How We Build a Country That Works” is published by HarperNorth and reviewed by Alona Ferber
This article appears in the 23 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russian Roulette